Forty people from a wide range of social and political movements gathered in Port Townsend this spring for a conference with the modest goal of assessing "The State of the Possible."
Among the group were those working on indigenous economics, voluntary simplicity, countering economic globalization, socially responsible business, inclusivity, inner city education, the abolition of nuclear weapons, environmental toxics, philanthropy, labor, international trade, food systems, and innovations in government. Participants came from most of the major ethnic groups found in the US and ranged in age from 22 to 83.
The gathering was called by The Positive Futures Network, the nonprofit organization that publishes YES! Our intent was not to form a new organization, network, or "vision statement." Instead, it was to engage people from these various movements in a conversation about how the work of each is linked to the others, where there might be possibilities for breakthroughs, and in what ways there might be a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. The gathering was also designed to enrich the interconnections among participants and to garner new insights and directions for YES!and the Positive Futures Network.
Throughout the two and a half days of small and large group discussions, open-space sessions, shared meals, walks on the beach, singing, and silence, there was an openness to learning from each other and to exploring new possibilities. There was a particular kind of excitement that happens when there is a gathering of a diverse group of people with a passion for the common good. There were lots of new connections made and old friendships renewed.
There were also the beginnings of what promises to be a much larger conversation about the degree to which we can work collaboratively to further a shift toward a more just, sustainable, and compassionate world.
Coming together around the love of life
During one of the sessions, Carl Anthony spoke about the need to create "majorities" that can get real changes happening, rather than assuming that our work will be small and marginal. Others talked about how to get to a scale that makes a difference. To the extent that we and others see our efforts as part of a larger shift, we become a more powerful force in society.
The language that we use to describe our work is one place where we might create that sense of a larger whole. A single, powerful idea - an organizing principle that we all have in common - could draw together the various efforts. Such a principle would need to be easily understood while having the heart to draw us together and the punch to be meaningful. And it would have to describe the essence of our work, so that our efforts could naturally align themselves with this principle and thus with each other. The organizing principle that generated the most excitement among the Port Townsend participants was the following:
"We are working toward a shift from a society
centered on the love of money to one centered on
the love of life."
In a simpler form, "We are working toward a society centered on the love of life."
Since "life" includes all forms of life, this principle transcends the false division between caring for the environment and caring for humans. Enhancing life is intuitively a good idea; it' s simple, easy to grasp, and easy to test.
There were other organizing principles suggested as well:
~ Working towards "wholeness" at all levels - personal, societal, ecological, and planetary.
~ Making conscious choices of how we spend time and, therefore, how we spend our lives.
~ Leaving the world a better place for our children.
~ Recognizing that there is "enough" for everyone.
~ Moving from a culture of competition to a culture of cooperation.
~ Working to "expand our circle of compassion."
Those gathered did not presume to come to a conclusion on the question of an appropriate organizing principle. Instead, we offer it as an idea that belongs to everyone and to no one. It has power to the extent that we choose to use it and to share it in our writing, conversations, and work.
Consciously changing consciousness?
Is it possible to actively work toward a "paradigm shift" or change in consciousness, or is such a shift the organic outcome of the grounded work of many people?
Many felt that the shift to a new, more holistic consciousness is too abstract an idea to advocate explicitly. Instead, this shift can help define everything we do and how we do it. Among other things, we can:
~ choose language that is inclusive, free of blame and self-righteousness; that points to the possible rather than the failings; and that is respectful of all life.
~ "show up" and listen with respect to people who are different than we are; seek to understand the experience and world views of other cultures - for example, Rebecca Adamson pointed out that the Hopi language does not have words for past, present, and future - only for "manifested" and "manifesting"; avoid knee-jerk positions on issues and knee-jerk assumptions about others we think will not agree with us.
~ express our enthusiasm (which Paul Hawken pointed out literally means "the breath of God") in all our work; enthusiasm and joy are contagious!
~ celebrate accomplishments and life with singing, poetry, dance, and theater, and take time for personal renewal.
A new consciousness can also inform the focus of our work. For example, we can:
~ ground our work in "place" where there are real human and ecological communities that make the task of enhancing both tangible and practical.
~ make connections between different seemingly unrelated issues (for example between simple living and global warming).
~ create places where people can exchange ideas and create cultural events.
~ promote "glasnost" in the US - telling the truth about the shadow side of American history: slavery and the assault on indigenous societies.
~ bring fresh ideas into the political arena, where they are in short supply.
There are also many ways in which new stories can be powerful influences on consciousness. The story of the unfolding of the universe and the role of human evolution as told by Thomas Berry is one example. Various religious traditions have stories that emphasize the love of life (the sacredness of the creation, for example). In the scientific world, there are approaches that emphasize a less reductionist and more systems-oriented way of viewing reality. There was also much discussion about telling a new story of what it means to be American.
Broadening our reach
How can larger and larger circles of people get involved in this shift, to the point where we can reach the scale needed to transform society?
Successful social movements and indigenous economic systems have common characteristics that facilitate inclusiveness. They allow easy entrance of new people; they are flexible, replicable, there is appreciation for the various gifts people have to offer; ideas are not "owned"; strategies evolve; there is belief that there is a positive way; and people feel connected to some larger purpose, perhaps something transcendent.
There are no definitive answers to the questions raised in Port Townsend about how a shift in society will come about. The ones we asked as we gathered, and even more powerful questions that came out of the conference, may be as important as any of our tentative answers. However, many people left with the sense that devoting our time and resources to building a larger movement that will contribute to this shift must be a priority in the coming years. And, as Jan Roberts describes, the tone of respect and commitment at the gathering created a foundation that will serve this process well."